The Perfect Cup

A Beautiful Coffee from Three Bags Full Cafe in Melbourne

If you know me at all, you know how much I love coffee.  I *crave* coffee.  Some might say I cannot truly function without coffee, but let’s not test that theory – some things are better left unknown. 😉

A good cup of coffee can go a looong way in getting my day off to a good start.  I can tell right away with that first sip – the perfectly extracted espresso, the smooth, silky milk topped with a layer of tantalizing foam that tickles your lips, all served at just the right temperature so that it glides down your throat & warms you from the inside, out.  Sound intoxicating?  Trust me, when done correctly, it is!

Some advice for my friends & family out there – if ever I’m in a bad mood, just serve me up a good cup of coffee & watch the transformation – it won’t take long, I promise.  I fully understand that coffee is technically a stimulant, but in those magical moments after taking that first sip, I swear to you a good cup of coffee can actually make me feel . . . relaxed.

Just thinking about that perfect cup & I can almost feel it now – the tension melting away from my neck & shoulders as the drug works its wonders, my face reflexively smiling at the simple thought of how wonderful it is to live in a world with coffee . . . ah, bliss. 😀

Until recently I had no idea just how much effort goes into making a good cup.  Knowing that I might end up in a job that required me to have some knowledge of what it takes to be a barista (& also out of my own fascination with this delicious beverage), I decided to enroll in a barista course shortly after arriving in Sydney back in May.  The course was only 5 hours long, so in no way did I think I would become an expert after such a short time (& even now, after four months of experience making espresso-based drinks, I still would not claim to be an expert), but I do think I’ve gained a much better appreciation for all the steps involved.  Believe it or not, there is actually more to it than I’m going to discuss here, but what follows are some of the main issues baristas must tackle on a daily basis.

Latte Art I learned how to create in my barista course using chocolate syrup - yes, I actually made these coffees!

GRINDING & TAMPING THE COFFEE

* Good cafes grind coffee only as needed, in order to preserve freshness.

* The grinder must be set correctly (& regularly adjusted) so that the espresso machine produces a 30 mL (1 oz) shot of espresso in 30 seconds.

– If the shot is pouring too quickly, the result is a weak, watery coffee.  Solution: Make the grind finer.

– If the shot is pouring too slowly, the result is a burnt, bitter coffee (N.B. This is how most Aussies view Starbucks coffee.  They generally believe that Americans think a “good” or “strong” coffee equals a burnt coffee :().  Solution: Make the grind more coarse.

– The way a barista packs the coffee into the “group handle” also affects the pour, along the same lines as described above.

– Environmental factors, such as the weather, can affect the pour as well.  For instance, on a humid day you will need to make the grind more coarse.  This is because the coffee will attract the moisture in the air, causing it to pack more tightly.

* Since the way the coffee is packed into the group handle clearly affects the quality of the resulting espresso, my barista course taught me that it is important for all baristas to use the same amount of force when “tamping” the coffee, specifically 18 kilos . . . that’s 40 lbs of force!!  We practiced tamping the coffee on a bathroom scale to get a feel for it – try it some time, it’s a workout!

Coffee from The Book Kitchen Cafe in Surry Hills

STEAMING THE MILK

The purpose of steaming the milk is not only to heat it (although of course heating the milk to the correct temperature is important), the goal is to both create foam or froth & then texturize the milk.

Part 1 – Creating the Froth/Foam

As the espresso shot is pouring, it is time to steam the milk.  The steam wand is inserted just far enough into the milk jug so that the holes on the tip of the wand are covered when you turn on the steam.  You then slowly lower the jug so that the holes are exposed & steam is forced into the milk, creating . . . you guessed it, foam! 🙂  How much foam you want to create depends on the type of drink you are making, but we’ll cover that in another post!

Now this may sound simple enough & once you get the hang of it I suppose it is, but it is a delicate process & when you are first learning it can be a bit tricky.  Too much steam allowed into the milk too quickly & you will hear big gulps of air being sucked in, creating what Aussies like to refer to as “roadhouse froth” – in case you were wondering, this is not a compliment! 😉  If the barista is frothing the milk correctly you should hear a gentle “kissing” noise as the air enters the milk.

Part 2 – Texturizing the Milk

Once you have created enough foam, you can lower the steam wand into the milk jug so that the holes are once again covered.  If the wand is positioned correctly, the milk will spin quickly in the jug, resulting in a smooth, silky texture.  Once the milk has reached the correct temperature (65C or 150F), you can turn off the steam wand & pour your drink.  So, how do you know once the milk has reached 65 degrees?  Well, the simple solution would be to use a thermometer, but life is never that simple, right? 😉  Most baristas tend to rely on their senses to tell them when the milk is ready.  Specifically, they will keep one hand on the bottom of the milk jug, feeling for when the milk has reached the desired temperature.  They will also listen to the sound of the milk as it spins in the jug – the sound gets audibly lower as the milk reaches 65 degrees.

Sound crazy?  I thought so, too!  I’ve gotten better at it over time, but I still think a thermometer would tend to be more accurate (at least when I’m the one behind the espresso machine, hahaha!)

More Latte Art I created during my barista course

HOW TO PROPERLY STORE COFFEE BEANS/GROUNDS

Do NOT store coffee in the fridge or freezer (this means you, mom – LOL!).  Always store any coffee beans or grounds in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place (such as inside a cupboard).  Why?  Remember what we said above about coffee attracting moisture – the fridge/freezer is not only going to enable coffee to readily absorb moisture, it will also pick up smells from the surrounding food  – fish flavored coffee, anyone? 😉

A NOTE ON LATTE ART

The latte art I created in the photos above were all made using a technique called “etching.”  This is where you use a thermometer or other instrument to essentially draw an image on the coffee.  While these designs may look impressive, they are not as technically difficult to produce as the rosettas (leaves) you see in the pictures from Three Bags Full Cafe & The Book Kitchen Cafe above.  Rosettas are created using a technique known as “free pouring,” in which you use your wrist to gently shake the milk jug as you are pouring the milk into the espresso – if done correctly, it will result in a beautiful leaf-like pattern (this is specifically for the rosetta; other patterns such as a love heart & many, many more designs can be created by the skilled barista).  More on this technique, including how my own latte art skills have evolved over the past few months, in my next post!

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Camille
    Oct 07, 2011 @ 10:40:35

    Very impressive post! Really informative and interesting. Its nice to know that you have learned more than just how to “wee in the bush.” Seriously, I am truly impressed with YOUR latte art and all you have learned about how to make “The Perfect Cup.” How will you ever go back to drinking American coffees?

    Can’t wait to hear more on how your skills have evolved.

    I am now heading to the freezer to get the Starbucks out!

    Reply

    • nicoleinoz
      Oct 08, 2011 @ 22:05:40

      Haha – yes, well, “weeing in the bush” is still a good skill to have, but not really resume material, hey? (By they way, “hey” is what an Aussie would say instead of “huh” – I think it has a nicer ring to it :)).

      I’m going to have to find some good cafes back home to get my cappuccino, latte, etc. fix! LOL – glad you’re finally getting that Starbucks out of the freezer . . . while you’re at it, you might want to chuck it in the bin (Aussie word for trash/garbage, but you probably could have figured that out) since it’s probably at least 8 months old. 😉

      Reply

  2. Auntie Marilyn
    Oct 08, 2011 @ 02:44:04

    Be prepared to make all the coffee when you come back home! Sounds like you certainly know a good cup of coffee! PS – I never store my coffee in the frig or freezer 🙂 Love and miss you honey! Enjoy the rest of your adventure and stay safe.

    Reply

    • nicoleinoz
      Oct 08, 2011 @ 22:07:50

      Hmmm, well in order to do that I’m going to need a proper espresso machine, complete with steam wand – pretty pricey, I would imagine! I’d like to scope out some local cafes when I come home though, so I’ll be sure to let you know what I find!

      Reply

  3. Kele Schwab
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 04:06:32

    Glad to know I’m not crazy when I think sometimes my soy latte tastes delish and other times…not so much:)

    Reply

  4. Heather
    Oct 10, 2011 @ 23:20:07

    I love this post! So happy you have this opportunity, even though it’s been plenty challenging at times.

    Reply

    • nicoleinoz
      Oct 12, 2011 @ 21:47:49

      Thanks! I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity as well. I’ve definitely become *much* more appreciative of a good cup of coffee after all I’ve learned & experienced! 0:-)

      Reply

  5. Aunt Penny
    Oct 12, 2011 @ 02:02:48

    Hi Niki, your Lattes look so professionally done and delicious… very impressive. There’s a lot more involved in making the various coffees than one would think. Miss you and looking forward to seeing you in a few months… much love always

    Reply

    • nicoleinoz
      Oct 12, 2011 @ 21:49:34

      Thanks! I haven’t really practiced doing that type of latte art (etching) since my class, but it was fun to learn. Now if only I could master those pesky free pours (rosettas, hearts, etc.)!

      Love & miss you too!

      Reply

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